I grew up on a farm about seven miles from the little town of Lake Placid, Florida which, at that time, probably had a population of about a thousand — tops. My brother, 13 years older, had 12 people in his graduating class, so that will give you a rough idea. The place hadn’t grown much by the time I came along.
The school bus used to pick me up about 7:00 AM. I was one of the lucky kids. The bus began its loop of about 40 miles at oh-dark-thirty, picking up some bleary-eyed kids from the outlying cattle ranches as early as 5:00, and depositing them home at about the same time. We had kids who rode their horses out to the “hard road,” unsaddled and put them in a paddock, then saddled up and rode home when they were dropped off from school. They still had ranch chores to do, then homework, then bed until whatever time they got up to do it all over again.
I was luckier, in that I had only about a 30-minute ride to school, with a few stops along the way. Like all kids I had trouble getting out of bed and on my way, and as often as not had to run for the bus, stopped at the end of our 75-yard clay road and tooting its horn. I hated riding the bus, because I hated just about every kid on it, but that’s a story for another time.
At school we lived for recess. A few of us kids (who would have been called “geeks” today) would gather in a beaten up old clump of Brazilian pepper that grew alongside the school building. Back then the peppers were fairly new, and were considered landscaping plants rather than the scourge they are today.
Those were pre-Apollo days, and we would play at being space pilots and so forth, as outlined by the “space operas” we listened to on Saturday morning radio: Tom Corbett – Space Cadet, Space Patrol, Flash Gordon and, for those few kids who actually had a TV, Captain Video. These sources of information were supplemented by comic books of the same names, plus some others. We didn’t learn a lot of science from them, but we got some powerful ideas and ambitions — some of us — that some even more or less realized later in life.
We had to use our imaginations. We didn’t have too much in the way of props. Playground equipment was limited to massive swings, see-saws and a sort of kid-powered merry-go–round. The games that centered on those appliances mostly involved fun, until a bigger kid decided to find out if he could push you so high on the swing or so fast on the merry-go-round that you would fall off, or “buck” you off the seesaw by slamming his end on the ground with his superior weight. Thus, the shrubbery. This broken branch would be the throttle, that one the steering lever, another would fire the ray gun, missles or whatever.
Because we exercised our imaginations in those ways, falling into the world of books was a natural next step. All of us geeks were readers. The school library was off limits to little kids, and we had to make do. I used to read the family’s Encyclopedia Americana for amusement, when I ran out of comic books or other fiction that I could understand.
My father, a self- taught horticulturist who was instrumental in developing the Caladium industry that still drives the local economy today, was heavy on books but light on fiction. What he had ran to the likes of Ernest Thompson Seton (boys’ outdoor stories), an autographed copy of Song of the South (Br’er Rabbit and his gang), and lots of books about plants and animals. I read ‘em all, along with the occasional paperback novel if I could swipe one from my Uncle Al, who lived next door. The reading was varied, but sometimes a bit dry. The most wonderful day of my life was entering the sixth grade and finding that I had access to a library at last.
I pity non-readers. People who don’t read for pleasure, I mean. They never know the delight of building pictures of infinite variety in their own heads, unneedful of TV, magazines and their distractions. Give a reader a book — about almost anything — and once into its hypnotic grasp they will almost literally be transported to another world, an amalgam of the author’s and their own imaginations.
I fear that we are losing that, even we readers, in these days of the internet and easy gratification of imagination. I know that much of the time when I am surfing the Web I get caught up in the frenzy of one more click, of wondering what’s around the next corner, so to speak, instead of enjoying what is in front of me. The search for variety, for something new, for something to relieve momentary boredom or disinterest, tends to draw us away from the details that we might absorb and find useful later. I believe that is dangerous. So much of our thought is unconsciously derived from the things that we see and read that shallowness is leading us to the sound bite/sight bite kind of culture that creates folks with less understanding than they know, and opinions that are not backed up by knowledge, but instead by opinion.
A dangerous condition indeed, in these days of mass manipulation of the media and of peoples belief systems. Combined with the failure of our schools to educate today’s students in even the rudiments of government, it create circumstances where our freedom has become a sitting duck for those who would have it otherwise.